A lasting conversation

Alumna Catherine Chidgey’s new novel, The Wish Child, tells the story of two German children caught up in World War II.

Although Catherine didn’t deliberately sit down to produce a World War II novel, she says in hindsight it seems natural that her work took that direction.

“My father was a child during the war, and as an adult he had a particular interest in the period. I studied German at school and at Victoria, and when I was 16 I spent three months on exchange in Germany. Herr K from my host family told me about his experiences fighting in Russia—he said there was very little for the soldiers to eat, and when they came to a field of watermelon they fell on them and gorged themselves, they were so hungry. He also said that if he hadn’t killed, it would have been an act of suicide. That conversation stayed  with me.”

In 1993, Catherine went to Berlin to study and says she found herself living in a city where the past was always visible.

“You could still see bomb damage and shrapnel marks and bullet holes on the buildings, particularly in the east. One of the professors at my university showed us a campus building—now the Department of Political Science—that had been the site of medical experiments during the Third Reich. It was powerful stuff for a fledgling writer.”

Catherine burst onto the New Zealand writing scene in 1998 with her first novel, the award-winning and bestselling In a Fishbone Church, and two subsequent novels, Golden Deeds and The Transformation. All three have been published internationally as well as by Victoria University Press in New Zealand. It has been 13 years since her last publication, a long time she confesses, “partly due to life getting in the way, but also because of the intricacy of the story I wanted to tell”.

She says that the Germany of The Wish Child, although historically accurate in many respects, is in other respects not quite real. She invented a job for one of her characters, a censor, who cuts forbidden words from books, the list of which accumulates as the war progresses.

“This was a way for me to comment on the absurdity of a regime in which language and meaning were routinely manipulated and abused—‘special treatment’ meant execution by lethal gas; ‘protective custody’ meant anything but.”

The Wish Child will be published by Victoria University Press in November 2016, and by Chatto & Windus in the United Kingdom in 2017.

“I feel relieved, nervous and excited. The book has been part of my life for so long—I am more than ready to let this child find its way in the world.”

The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey

Erich Kröning is an only child on a farm near Leipzig and Sieglinde Heilmann lives a busy life in a middle-class Berlin neighbourhood—seeing her father off to work in the censors’ office, going on school outings to factories, visiting her wealthy Aunt Hannelore. Both children dream of joining Hitler Youth and helping to build a glorious future, but their dream is about to collapse.

Release date: 10 November 2016. Hardback, $40, paperback $30.